The sudden resignation of Mike Hill sets up a fresh electoral contest in the town, a seat long-held by Labour, and marks the first test of Sir Keir’s leadership since taking over from Jeremy Corbyn last year. Bookmaker Coral has made the Tories odds-on favourites to win the by-election at 1-2, with Labour at 13-8 to retain the seat that was once held by Lord Peter Mandelson, a former cabinet minister and one of the architects of New Labour.
Starmer must be thankful that a general election is still at least two years away
And former Labour MP Tom Harris said Sir Keir would be worried that the Tories were even being considered as contenders in what had always been his party’s natural territory until Boris Johnson’s crushing “Red Wall” election win in 2019.
Writing in the Telegraph, Mr Harris said: “The Hartlepool by-election will certainly be a major test for the Labour leader.
“But even a humiliating loss in a seat that has been Labour for most of the post-war years will not mean he has to be replaced at the top of his party.”
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He continued: “There is no appetite in the party for a fresh leadership contest and no obvious successor waiting in the wings.
“Which is just as well for the Labour leader because the omens are not good.
“Starmer did more than any other politician to seek to overturn the result of the 2016 EU referendum; it is unlikely that the Conservatives will allow local voters to forget this, given that 70 per cent of them voted Leave.”
Mr Harris said Sir Keir would not face a leadership challenge whatever the outcome of the Hartlepool by-election, which is expected to be held on the same day as local elections on May 6.
But he added: “Starmer will not be removed any time soon, whatever happens in Hartlepool.
“More worrying for his party is the fact that in this north east coastal community, which should be natural Labour territory, the Conservatives are considered as even a possible contender.
“If seats like this are in play, Starmer must be thankful that a general election is still at least two years away.”
Mr Hill won the Hartlepool seat in 2017 and held off a Conservative and Brexit Party challenge at the last election but saw his majority slashed by more than half to just under 3,600.
His resignation follows reports that he used taxpayers’ money to fight a staff member’s claim of unfair dismissal, sexual assault and harassment.
Mr Hill was suspended by Labour in September 2019 over allegations he sexually harassed a woman, but had the whip restored to contest the general election two months later.
According to the Sunday Times, Mr Hill claimed £2,000 on parliamentary expenses for the excess on his employment liability policy as he looked to fight the allegations.
The newspaper said he had failed to keep his name secret in the legal proceedings.
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Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds did not comment on Mr Hill’s resignation when asked about it during a virtual event with the Reform think tank, instead focusing on the upcoming local elections in May.
She said: “We have a whole range of elections coming up very, very soon.
“We have local elections and they don’t necessarily hit the headlines as much, but for their impacts on people’s living standards, they are absolutely critical.”
The Treasury confirmed that Mr Hill had been appointed Steward and Bailiff of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern – the archaic process that effectively resigns an MP.
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